DENVER — When first responders rushed to the World Trade Center on 9/11, they understood how difficult it would be to rescue citizens trapped in the inferno raging high atop the New York City skyline.
But 20 years later, those firefighters, police officers, and paramedics continue to battle diseases and mental health issues stemming from the chaos.
When the Twin Towers collapsed, hundreds of people were instantly killed, and many more trapped underneath the rubble lost their lives.
In total, 412 first responders died in the immediate aftermath of the towers' collapse, but diseases and other illnesses associated with the debris may have taken more lives than all those lost on 9/11.
The toxic dust and debris that spewed out of Ground Zero sent asbestos, benzene, and other carcinogenic chemicals into the air, making it impossible for countless New Yorkers to avoid health impacts associated with those chemicals later on.
Benzene, a chemical used in jet fuel, is directly linked to acute myeloid leukaemia. It's one of the main forms of leukemia diagnosed among first responders and residents of Lower Manhattan.
More than 350 responders developed asbestosis, a lung condition caused by exposure to asbestos. Approximately 444 responders have also been diagnosed with pulmonary fibrosis, due to asbestos exposure as well.
Those respiratory problems also put 9/11 responders at a higher risk of contracting and even dying from COVID-19. New York City attorney Michael Barasch told Newsday last year at least 100 9/11 responders with Ground Zero-related illnesses died from COVID-19.
To make matters worse, many first responders are expected to be diagnosed with mesothelioma in the coming years. That's because it takes 20 to 50 years to develop the condition following asbestos exposure.
The toxic dust also increased the number of T-cells, a kind of immune cell, among those who inhaled it. That's putting others are at a greater risk of developing prostate cancer.
In fact, since 2016, prostate cancer among 9/11 responders have nearly tripled.
Many more struggle with long-term cardiovascular disease.
Compounding those physical ailments, mental health issues such as depression, anxiety, PTSD, and Survivor Syndrome affect one in five responders. Half of all 9/11 first responders still require mental health care services.
Among the tens of thousands of 9/11 first responders around the country who signed up for the World Trade Center Health Program, more than 3,400 have died to date. Among them are hundreds of FDNY firefighters. On 9/11, 300 FDNY firefighters died in the attacks.
An analysis from The Conversation shows respiratory and upper-digestive tract issues accounted for 34% of deaths, the number one cause of 9/11 responder deaths. The next plurality, about 30%, have died from cancer, and another 15% were attributed to mental health issues.
Federal funding for the 9/11 Victims Compensation Fund was made permanent in 2019, following an intense hearing on Capitol Hill. Jon Stewart, the comedian and former host of "The Daily Show," chewed out members of the House Judicial Committee Congress for not appearing for a hearing on a bill to extend those funds.
The fund was set to run out in 2020, as it was only extended a handful of time since it started in 2001.
But his viral speech, along with testimony from dozens of 9/11 responders from New York, struck a nerve with Congress. A month afterward, the bill was approved by both chambers of Congress and signed into law by President Trump.